I just finished The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, by Albert Camus. It’s the first of any of his work that I’ve read, and it was pretty impressive. The density of memorable quotables alone was astounding. There were a handful of things that I reacted to, some specific to this work, and others just regarding the power of his writing in general.
The first large division of Sisyphus, called An Absurd Reasoning, was the best bit, in my opinion, with everything that followed seeming less cohesive. His explanations of how other existentialist thinkers have approached the Absurd, and his critiques of their conclusions, were fascinating. He made judgments completely in line with the judgments I would have made about those philosophers’ thoughts (though perhaps with somewhat less eloquence). On the other hand, maybe I would have had other opinions and was just swayed by his rhetoric.
Camus’s primary concern with the Absurd of Kierkegaard, Chestov, and Husserl is that they all touch on the same notion of the Absurd, but then they don’t treat it with a properly Absurd attitude. They each put it on a pedestal, in their own ways.
Camus, on the other hand, focuses on how the Absurd isn’t a thing that exists on its own. Rather, it is a state achieved by a particular type of interaction between a person and a person’s environment. If there is only the environment, there is nothing absurd there because the environment simply is, there’s no one there to interpret it. And if there is only the person, there is no possibility of anything being perceived, and so no possibility of a defeat of expectation, and so no Absurd.
But in criticizing those existentialist thinkers, specifically in how they make a leap of faith in their interpretation about the Absurd, Camus still makes his own leap. I don’t think he ever claims he doesn’t, to his credit. The essay was motivated, as it describes, by a need to answer the question of “why not suicide?” Why keep going?
The leap that he makes, which answers that question for him, is this whole contemplation of what the Absurd is and how it is ultimately this motivating force in his life. Or some such.
But however his thoughts might have applied to him, I I think that they’re something of a stretch for my particular parcel of existence.
My own rationale for “why keep on going”, if I have to cobble one together, would simply be because I’ve never felt that I should not keep on going. Whatever biological imperative it is that demands of me that I avoid dying is alive and kicking. I don’t need a reason because I’ve felt as if I should need a reason.
This is somewhat worrying, because there are other people out there who perhaps don’t feel that biological imperative that strongly. If the neurochemical apparatus that keeps that feeling going is broken, perhaps you do need a reason.
But if my own feelings about suicide ever changed for the worse, and I suddenly needed a reason, and none of the reasons I’ve encountered thus far have ever been entirely convincing, what would I do?
Related, the best contemplation of depression and suicide I’ve ever read, from Hyperbole and a Half.
I thought the rest of the essay was interesting, but not particularly life-changing I suppose. Maybe my being unable to sympathize with his main conclusion colored everything else that followed.
The difference between the Greeks and moderns.
There is simply something enticing about reductionist oversimplification. This is who we, the moderns – a multiethnic, multicultural, multireligion, multisocioeconomic, multiwhatever civilization, are this way. The Greeks, another heterogenous people, were that way.
To Camus, the Greeks “embraced limits,” while the moderns chase after totality. The Greeks accepted both sides of the coin when it came to whatever, be it religion or art or the practice of living, while moderns seek things single-mindedly and to the exclusion of alternatives.
Maybe that’s partly true, and that part truth is fascinating if you turn it into a lens through which you can view your surroundings and discover some new way of looking at the culture you’re embedded in.
Oversimplification makes that lensing analysis much easier, at the risk of putting blinders on one’s perception of the often messier reality of things.
Oran and Camus’ Travel Writing
The other essays at the end of the book were about two Algerian cities (Algiers and Oran), and they paint this extremely fascinating picture of the places and the time in which Camus lived and traveled.
They’re also borderline racist, but hey.
I really enjoyed his descriptions, but I can’t help thinking about the discrepancy between the probable reality and his expression of it.
If you take away the screen of his memory and the screen of his intentions and the screen of the writing process (in which we attempt to reduce reality to fluid symbols that evoke subtly or radically different meanings to different people, and redo and revise those symbols to be not just accurate but pleasing too), is the reality interesting at all?
Or is the reality no different from the mundane everyday experience of some place that’s no different from a thousand other places. Let’s ignore the possibility of the wondrous ordinary.
Then compare this genre on the spectrum of other devices designed to capture pictures of reality. Still photography, perhaps might be more revealing. But the framing of what is shown makes photography an equally deceptive way to show reality. Video, unedited, might be a little better, though still susceptible to framing.
Really, even a direct transmission of a human sensory experience would probably be tainted by the individual’s reaction to the scene. And there’s no technology, yet, that allows the direct transmission of the total happening.
So what do you do, if you’re trying to make guesses about what the Oran that Camus experiences and describes is really like? It’s an equally troublesome stripping away of things that you arbitrarily tag as exaggeration or skewed interpretation, based on your conception of your own similar approximations of reality. Which, in turn, you should probably be highly skeptical of because you more than likely have no direct experience on which to base such estimates.
We are minds trapped in a bag of meat trapped in a pocket of local existence with perceptions of the outside mediated almost entirely by symbols crafted by meatbags in a similar position.